Analysis of an intercultural situation in which the complicity with a Swiss representative and his driver leads to a role confusion.
A - The case Edo
In the middle and late nineties, I used to work for the Swiss government in Bosnia- Hercegovina. Among other tasks, I was in charge to ensure support to political and business delegations visiting Bosnia. It was the time when in Switzerland the refugees from Bosnia were a big issue in the political discussion. Many Swiss politicians travelled themselves to the Balkans in order to collect first-hand information and to get an own personal impression. Some of these politicians I accompanied on their journey as a "guide". In addition, there was always two local staff with us, such as a translator and a driver.
Once I accompanied two Swiss parliamentarians for a one week trip throughout all Bosnia- Herzegovina. Our driver was the 30 years old Edo (name changed by author). During many long car drives, we had lot opportunity for discussions. All passengers of the car took part of them. Everybody told his stories and listened to the others. Our guests as well as the translator, the driver and myself. In particular, Edo, the driver, had a lot of stories to bring to us. He told us from his time as a soldier in the Bosnian war, from his comrades, his family, the children and their rather uncertain future. We spoke much, placed questions, laughed also, and so we came closer one with another.
The first two evenings we had dinner all together in the hotel, and afterwards, we closed the day in a friendly atmosphere with a glass of wine. This is to be mentioned, because it wasn’t usual at this time, to eat together with the local personnel and to spend the spare time with them. The local employees were instructed to arrange themselves and spend their leisure time independently after the daily end of work. After arrival in the hotel in the evenings, one normally saw his driver again only next morning before next departure. In the meantime, the driver had to care about car maintenance and fuel. Furthermore, he was responsible for the evaluation of the safest routeing regarding the next day's trip. Last but not least, driver and car have strictly to be ready on agreed time for next departure. About his own needs after termination of the daily work, the driver cares himself about as he received in advance of the journey an appropriate remuneration.
However, Edo joined us at the beginning not only during the working hours but also in the evenings, at dinner as well as with the good night-glass of wine. We felt not polite, neither our guests nor I, to exclude Edo suddenly after a good and intensive day in company, which was substantially enriched exactly by himself.
On the third morning, Edo was missed. It was 8 o’clock, the agreed departure time, but no Edo, no car. So, I called his room. After a few ringings, Edo answered. Still sleepy, he apologised for his delay and promised to be ready in a few minutes. Actually, some ten minutes later he was with us and we could finally start a new splendid day. The early morning episode was not anymore an issue, the day passed again in harmony.
However, next morning Edo was missing again. This time he didn’t blame his badly functioning alarm clock as he did yesterday but complained having had a bad sleep during the night and suffering now from a headache. Still, during the call, with which I had waked him up, he asked for a further half an hour time in his room, in order to take a shower and having breakfast. I refused the request.
This day, we found Edo in a rather bad mood. He felt offended by me because I had forbidden (due to delay) shower and breakfast. For the first time, it was all the day mostly calm in the car. We completed the whole work program, but the inspiring strength of the group was far away this day.
In the evening of the same day, I took Edo away from the group and spoke to him in private. I explained him again the purposes and goals of our mission, reminded him of his tasks and announced the immediate end of our daily common dinners and merry after work hours in the company. I instructed him to concentrate more on his tasks and to organise from now on his leisure time independently. Edo understood and accepted with a scarce „da, dobro. Nema problema“ (Bosnian: “yes, okay. No problem”).
Edo did not anymore miss. From now on, he was always on time. Edo recovered all his abilities that he possessed already before this journey. He became again the highly professional and absolutely reliable colleague, as I knew him before, since a long time. Maybe, his behaviour during the car drives became a little bit more calm or shy after this story. Maybe the contacts between him and our guests became slightly more formal.
However, by the end, the journey became a success for all of us.
Before Edo received the job as a driver with the Swiss Embassy, he was a soldier. Before he got recruited by the army, he was a student. Before he became a student, he was a little boy. Edo had grown up in Yugoslavia marked by Tito. He grew up in a country, where every acting had been well organised from upstairs, where every thinking was collectively oriented and hierarchically organised. Edo had no chance to learn other realities. He was not used to eating with superiors at the same table. Eating together with people for Edo meant equality of everybody at the table. Another meaning was at this time not foreseen in his personal configuration.
B – Short analyse of the case Edo
1. The communications process.
Context: After a critical incident during a business journey throughout Bosnia-Hercegovina, I had to ensure a smooth further process of the journey. The main topic to be discussed on the following pages is my communication with Edo, in which I declared, not to be willing anymore neither to share our spare time nor to spend dinner together from now on.
I was the sender of communication as an individual, but also as the representative of Edo’s employer (social player: Swiss Government/Embassy) as well as Edo’s superior.
My strategy was to achieve an improved discipline and overall professional performance shown by Edo. I spoke with Edo apart from the group and avoided, therefore, to blame him in the public.
The nature of message was a critical intervention by my side: reproach and order. The content of the message was my decision to change the way of living together during our business journey. The used codes were the kind of language and behaviour. In this case (because I knew Edo already since a long time) I chose a bilateral discussion (never blame him in front of others), respectful behaviour but clear orders. The channel of communication was a personal meeting, the medium an oral discussion in the English language which we both Edo and myself were able to understand and to speak in a rather comparable quality. The surrounding (exterior influences) was quite protected: a corner in the hotel lobby, no other people around, we had a beer together, I invited.
Edo was the receiver as an individual as well as a social person, which means Bosnian citizen and a local employee of the Swiss Embassy. Furthermore, Edo was a member of the group of local employees at the Swiss Embassy, which had an own informal hierarchy within themselves. Edo’s position within this group was relatively high ranked perception and understanding of receiver, Edo was habituated from his early childhood on, to exactly follow the standards and orders by authorities. He was not used to developing action or thinking further than he was asked for. Edo was furthermore habituated by his personal and social history to spend his life strictly together with his family and, outside home, with “class-equals”, but never with socially higher ranked persons or groups.
To accept Edo at my dining table (and other informal spare time situations) meant for him the acceptance of his person as an equal one of us. He felt for that time to be on the same hierarchy level like me. The result of this misunderstanding was that Edo refused from then on my orders and ignored the rules given by his superiors (me, Embassy).
Receiver’s reaction and result of communication
Thanks to the awareness of both of us Edo and me, the chosen form of communication, the used codes and – not least – also thanks to the good personal knowledge of each other, we could bring together (!) our crisis to a constructive final end. Edo showed his irritation (which he also mentioned during the discussion) about my closer relationship to him during the journey but accepted my explanation that for me dining together does not mean to refuse all social differences between all the people participating at the table.
Thanks to our long-term relationship, which at this time was already based on a well established confidence, and as well, thanks to the common ground we could create during this “man-to-man” communication, our discussion came up to a rather good result, compared with my aims before this meeting (re-establishing a well functioning cooperation). The common ground we created contained in this case the common – mostly good - experience we had made with each other before this incident, the kind of language and behaviour we showed, the same opinion on the our responsibility regarding our jobs to be done and results to be achieved, the general awareness of the same boat in wich we are sailing.
Thus, this evaluation does of course not express Edo’s view of the communication’s result.
2. Cultural configuration
Both, Edo and me, were quite well aware of the cultural configuration of each other, because a) he was working for a pretty long time with “the Swiss”, b) I was living already more than a year in Bosnia-Hercegovina and c) we knew each other not that bad, which means, we shared already before this incident a large number of (also difficult and stressful) situations and experiences.
Edo never spoke about politics (political sphere). He was a Bosnian Muslim (religious sphere), but lived in a “mixed marriage”. His wife was a catholic. The children grow up without a strong binding to any church, the family followed a modern, western-oriented lifestyle (values, cultural concepts).
3. Edo’s social framework
Edo belonged to the staff of the Swiss embassy (social group, enterprise), to which he provided immense loyalty. Apart from his family (community), the embassy seemed his most important social connection. He was not only always available without any complaining for (almost daily happened) overtime work, but also giving efforts whenever he felt necessary. Edo met also on a regular basis with his old comrades from the army, but only in order to care about old friendships and to exchange common memories (little-organised group). Edo wasn’t a militarist, he felt even shame on several of the operations executed by his own army during the war. Edo lived in the smooth neighbourhood (little organised) with other families of the same social class (working class = low middle class, compared with Bosnian reality). Furthermore, Edo was actively interested in naïve arts (aires culturelles) and visited exhibitions, whenever he had opportunity and time to do.
4. Edo’s individuality
In addition to the characteristics described in chapter 1.3.1., it is to say that Edo was not only highly intelligent (general aspects), but also well educated (University degree). He was quick and precise (cognitive aspects) understanding everything, sometimes we had do discuss his perception (or reciprocally also mine…) (see chapter 1.3.1.) and interpretation. While communicating (as the sender), he was mostly clear and precise. The job as our driver was not his “wish of life”. Thus, he was intellectually under-challenged. And he suffered pretty much from this lack of professional challenge. From time to time (affective aspects) dissatisfaction overwhelmed him with a negative effect on his mood, his motivation and also on the quality of his work.
5. Real process of Intercultural Communication (IC)
In the real process of IC between Edo and myself the following confrontations have been happened (among others, list not complete):
Swiss Sender v.s. Bosnian Receiver 10 years older v.s. 10 years younger Offending v.s. Defending
Power of superior v.s. Powerlessness of dependent employee
Christian v.s. Muslim
Native German speaker v.s. Native Bosnian speaker
Worldwide travelling/working experience v.s. Never been outside Bosnia-Hercegovina
Low hierarchy oriented v.s. Strong hierarchy oriented
Only peace experience v.s. War reality (trauma)
Comprehension for political realities/conditions v.s. refusing politics in general
Critical distance to certain values (e.g. consumption) v.s. Admiration to these values
Group of expatriates v.s. Group of local staff
Foreigner in this country vs. Citizen of this country
Belonging to a group of expatriates v.s. Belonging to group of local staff
Contacts with different social classes v.s. Only contacts with the self-belonging social group
Single v.s. Member (head) of a family
Civil society/peace shaped social contacts v.s. Military/war shaped social contacts
Perception v.s. Perception
Satisfied and motivated v.s. Dissatisfied and (sometimes) de-motivated
Mentally well-balanced v.s. Suffering
Personal perspectives v.s. Uncertain personal perspectives